When the sun rose over the Appalachian Mountains, you would find Terri Ahern on her porch, sitting in her rocking chair and reading the Bible.
She liked to wake up early. Her husband, Sam, less so, but once he woke up, they’d move to a nearby swing and drink coffee together.
Terri used to say Sam “made the best coffee in the world.”
He still remembers the first day they met. Her beauty, he recalled, was impossible to miss. "Just stunning, stop you in your tracks, [but] her outward beauty was very much surpassed by her inward beauty," he said.
For 44 years, they built a life together. First in McDonough, Georgia, then in the mountains of Rabun Gap, a remote community at the northeast tip of the state.
Terri became Mom to her daughters, then Mimi to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“She wanted everyone having a good time around her all the time,” explained her daughter, Cherise. “She just laughed, and it was contagious.”
Terri relished the moments she could entertain and take care of others.
But about two weeks ago, the 68-year-old went to bed with a headache. She told her husband she was going to “sleep it off” and would be fine in the morning.
Morning came, and her headache was worse.
Sam took her to the hospital, thinking she was having a stroke. Doctors quickly decided to transfer her to a bigger hospital in nearby Gainesville.
Before the transfer, Sam told NBC News, he was able to see Terri. He hugged her, kissed her and told her how much he loved her. He never expected it to be the last time they saw each other in person.
Terri was soon diagnosed with COVID-19. The diagnosis stunned her family.
“She has masks and gloves all in her car and hand sanitizer. Everything that we've been told to do, she's done,” Cherise told NBC News. “COVID never even crossed my mind.”
Within hours of the positive test result, Terri's condition started to crash.
Sam and Cherise were on their way to the hospital, even though they knew they wouldn’t be allowed inside, when the nurse called.
They pulled off on the side of the road and, like so many families in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, had to say their goodbyes in a video call.
“We told her we loved her, all she could muster was a grunt,” Sam recalled, “but we know she heard us. We just know."
The suddenness overwhelmed Cherise.
“It is just unimaginable to say goodbye to your mother over a Zoom call. It's just not fair,” she said, her voice breaking.
A nurse caring for Terri at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville called to ask Sam if Terri was religious. He said she was a Christian.
The nurse asked Sam if Terry had a favorite hymn.
“Victory in Jesus,” he said.
The nurse held her hand as Terri heard her favorite hymn again. Soon she became unresponsive, and before the end of the week, she died.
It all happened over the span of one week: the headache, then the strokes, then everything changing forever.
Terri loved her family more than anything.
She kept a “go bag” by the front door at all times. She wanted to be packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice in case her children or grandchildren called.
Her family said that is the hardest part: Terri dropped everything to be there for her family, but when she needed them the most, they weren’t able to do the same.
In the parking lot of Rabun Gap Presbyterian Church, where my dad is the minister, family and friends came together this week to say goodbye to Terri. It was the only way the Aherns could safely have a memorial.
For more than an hour, a procession of 250 cars passed the grieving relatives as people paid their respects. Those in the procession kept their distance and wore masks, holding signs out of their car sunroofs, giving air hugs and blowing kisses.
As the final cars drove by, music wafted from the open windows of the church.
One last time, the piano played “Victory in Jesus” for Terri.